Thursday, July 14, 2011

Old Hanford misconceptions come home to roost again

By Suzanne Dahl, Tank Waste Treatment manager, Nuclear Waste Program

Nothing is as frustrating as watching history repeat itself negatively.

A July 10th Tri-City Herald article highlighted the findings from a recent federal advisory board’s report on tank waste treatment. The report recommends delaying a decision about additional low-activity waste treatment for another 3 to 5 years. Hanford’s Waste Treatment Plant, or Vit Plant, currently under construction may vitrify as little as one-third of Hanford’s low-activity waste, leaving a substantial gap in the plan to safely treat all 56 million gallons of waste.

This recommendation is a 180-degree switch from the recently negotiated, legally binding agreement setting the schedule for cleanup that was agreed to by U.S. Department of Energy (USDOE), EPA and Ecology. It reminds us of two recurring misconceptions in Hanford cleanup logic: “Everything at Hanford can be solved by delaying it to a future funding cycle” and “There is always a magical technology awaiting us in the future.”

Assumptions like these have led to a 20-year delay in starting the Waste Treatment Plant. This, in turn, caused the projected end of treatment to slip from 2028 to 2047. Further delays are probably inevitable if USDOE puts off making critical decisions. For Ecology, the path is clear: A second Low-Activity Waste Vitrification Facility is needed.

If USDOE cannot fully test another treatment method by 2015, then the default is to build another vitrification facility. Limited time remains to research other technologies given the current schedule. And we do not feel confident that delaying the decision 3 to 5 years will allow us to reach our mutually agreed endpoint.

If the Waste Treatment Plant starts without a plan for treating the additional low-activity waste, our current information indicates that the High-Level Waste Vitrification Facility cannot run at full capacity. In that scenario, we will not meet the 2047 deadline for treating all of Hanford’s tank waste.

We agree with the federal advisory board’s recommendation to start the current Low-Activity Waste Facility early. The lessons learned from this process would inform startup of the rest of the Waste Treatment Plant. However, technical issues in this plan also need resolution.

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